The Roaring Twenties - Historical Circumstances of "The Great Gatsby"

Seminar Paper 2007 14 Pages

American Studies - Literature


Table of Contents

1 Introduction

2 Society and its Loss of Values

3 Materialism, Wealth and Industrialization

4 Prohibition

5 The Dwindling Faith in God

6 The Lost American Dream

8 Summary

9 References

1 Introduction

“The Lost Generation” is a term which encompasses a broad range of American authors who were born around 1900.[1] Amongst those litterateurs are many who are said to be among the most influential and important writers in the history of American letters. This term paper shall examine what historical circumstances constituted the “common adventures” and “common attitudes”[2] of that generation as reflected in Fitzgerald’s novel The Great Gatsby.

The term “The Lost Generation”was given by Gertrude Stein, an authoress of note and contemporary of both Fitzgerald and Hemingway, who used her quotation: “you are all a lost generation,” as the epigraph for his novel The Sun Also Rises.What is meant by the attribute “lost”? Why was this dismal term applied to the young adults of the 1920s – an era of prosperity and freedom in America? How did Fitzgerald depict this “lost” world in The Great Gatsby, with respect to material abundance on the one hand versus spiritual poverty on the other?

The zeitgeist of an erainevitably shapes the human beings who live in it: how they act, what they look like, and what they think the meaning of their lives in particular and humanity in general might be. Therefore, it is necessary to explore the 1920s in America in order to understand fully the meaning Fitzgerald communicates in The Great Gatsby.

This paper will therefore investigate several characteristics of the decade which are relevant for the interpretation of the novel. The parameters to be surveyed are:society in general; the materialism, wealth and industrialization which created that society;Prohibition as one of the most significant elements of the 20s;the faltering faith in God(as but one example of the failure of institutions that were supposed to be a refuge for human beings); and the loss of faith in the American dream and other treasured ideals. These issues will be analyzed in consideration of The Great Gatsby and the question of how Fitzgerald uses them as tropes for his social criticism of the so called Jazz Age.

The paper will be based on a number of monographs and anthologies dealing with the major American writers and literature of the 1920s as well as the historical context that shaped their literary vision. The particular focus will be on Fitzgerald’s seminal novel, The Great Gatsby, as it incorporates and inflects the major historical and literary themes of its time.

2 Society and its Loss of Values

In order to understand the novel it is necessary to become acquainted with the zeitgeist of the 1920s in America. The era had its roots in World War I, then called The Great War, and its aftermath. US-president Woodrow Wilson (1913-1921) once said to a friend considering declaring war on Germany: “Once lead this people into war and they’ll forget there ever was such a thing as tolerance. To fight you must be brutal and ruthless, and the spirit of ruthless brutality will enter into every fiber of our national life […]. A nation cannot put its strength into a war and keep its head level; it has never been done.”[3] This notable assertion describes a future brutalization and intolerance that will subconsciously affect the way of thinking of every single American and of the whole community in general.

Atfirst glance, the subject of the war seems only indirectly touchedupon within the novel. Plain allusions are the biographies of Carraway and Gatsby, both of whom fought against the Germans in France. But one has to take into account that the whole story actually hinges on the background of the war. The American entry into the war tore apart the young courting couple of Jay Gatsby and Daisy Buchanan, a tragedy that happened many times in reality throughout the whole nation during the war, even if a soldier was lucky enough to return, a reunification with his beloved was uncertain, given the way war inevitably changes people. Aswas famously stated by Remarque,World War I created “a generation of men who, even though they may have escaped shells, where destroyed by the war.”[4]

Wilson’s forecastof a “spirit of ruthless brutality,” generated by the young generation’s experience of war, came to pass later, within the twenties. Prominent examples include the controversial, emotion-driven electrocutions of Sacco and Vanzetti, two alleged communists who were put to death because they were said to be a threat to national security; the corruption of the Harding administration (1921-23), which soldoil to private organizations and thereby became rich on the expense of others; or the trial of John Scopes, a teacher who insisted on teaching Darwin’s theory of evolution in his biology classes.[5] Another striking evidence of a society that was characterized by “the central paradox of […] a belief in progress coupled with a dread of change”[6] (the historian Lawrence W. Levine) is the resurrection of the Ku-Klux-Klan, which perpetrated prejudices and violence against Jews, foreigners, Catholics and blacks. Interestingly, the legislative sometimes seemed to agree with political targets of the KKK if you only take the National Origins Act of 1924, which decisively restricted the figure of non-white immigration.[7]

That pervasive societal theme of intolerance was taken up by Fitzgerald and expressed in the character of the macho and racist Tom Buchanan. Tom, the husband of Daisy and the rival of Gatsby, frankly expresses his disdain for other races: “It’s up to us who are the dominant race to watch out or these other races will have control of things. [...] This idea is that we’re Nordics. I am and you are and you are and we have produced all the things that go to make civilization- oh, science and art and all that. Do you see?”[8] But Tom’s aggression is not confined to conversation. During a party he breaks the nose of his mistress, Myrtle Wilson, with “a deft movement”[9] when she dares to mock him. Tom is by far the most brutal character in The Great Gatsby, personifying all the evil of the society. It is one of the big tragedies of the novel that Gatsby himself, one of the few virtuous characters, in the end loses his struggle against Tom and is indirectly killed by him through the hand of George Wilson. Fitzgerald represents the hopelessness of the Jazz Age, as an era of innocence lost through that triumph of evil over good.

But it is not only Tom who stands for the hostile and close-minded society of the Roaring Twenties. Fitzgerald depicts almost every character as either openly obnoxiousand insulting, or, perhaps more interestingly, as a part of an indifferent society in which a human being does not care about anything but himself. One of several examples of verbal obnoxiousness and vulgarity is Mrs. McKee’s, a party guest, statement about a Jewish man: “I almost married a little kyke who’d been after me for years. I knew he was below me.”[10]

The concept of a society consisting of smug complacency coupled with individualism is illustrated through Klipspringer’s, a stranger living in Gatsby’s house, song - he sings: “In the morning, in the evening, ain´t we got fun, one thing’s sure and nothing’s surer, the rich get richer and the poor get children.”[11] The lines of that well-known song tell us that many well-off people were aware of the situation of their poorer contemporaries but just did not care about them. On the contrary, they made fun of the difficult situation of having a child and nothing to feed. The song shows that the rich no longer followed a code requiring them to at least hide their indolence and self-centeredness - they could display it openly, well aware that their views were widespread and openly accepted now among their peers.

A further tremendous change took place when women started to discover their independent desires and struggled to free themselves from the inflexible family bonds which forced them into inflexible roles as devoted mothers or subservient spouses. The divorce rate sprang up as women recognized that a life without a manwaspossible. Alongside women’s emancipation, the discourse about sexuality reached unimaginable dimensions. Since the popularization of the revolutionary writings of Sigmund Freud, the sexual drive was no longer regarded as sinful but as given by nature. Sexuality became part of science and, increasingly, freed from taboos. This development spurred the increasing promiscuity of the Lost Generation.[12] The image of the new self-assured, powerful women is also represented in The Great Gatsby by the characters of Myrtle Wilson, Daisy Buchanan and Jordan Baker. Myrtle, the adulterous wife of George Wilson, expresses her loathing for her husband right before her death: “beat me! […] throw me down and beat me, you dirty little coward!”[13] Daisy, tired of and repulsed byher husband’s vicious attitudes, mocks him repeatedly: “I can’t seem to remember, but I think we talked about the Nordic race. Yes, I’m sure we did. It sort of crept up on us and first thing you know.”[14] The dubious character of Jordan Baker reflects another type of the new modern woman. Along with her promiscuity and cheating during golf tournaments she resorts to the same doubtable means like her male counterparts.

Fitzgerald shows that the strong Puritan values which were the social foundation of America since its inception were suddenly being rejected wholesale and replaced by a new society of hedonism and individualism. The thriving economic wealthachieved through rapid industrialization propelled and camouflaged the people’s gradual dehumanization. The next chapter focuses on this crucial development and its thematization within The Great Gatsby.

3 Materialism, Wealth and Industrialization

Apart from a few early years of relative economic distress the American twenties were characterized by an unprecedented prosperity, with industrial production that seemed to be unstoppable. Countless factories, which primarily produced consumer goods such as cars or electronic appliances, banks and stores of every description sprang up. Now the common man was able to buy commodities which had been regarded as luxuries for the rich only few years before. That is why the twenties soon became associated with attributes like “golden” or “roaring”.[15]


[1] Cf. Malcolm Cowley. Exiles Return: a literary odyssey of the 1920s. New York: Penguin, 1994. 3.

[2] Ibid. 4.

[3] ChristianG. Appy, ThomasV. DiBacco, and LornaC.Mason. History of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991. 511.

[4] Erich Maria Remarque. All Quiet on the Western Front. New York: Ballantine Books, 1982. From the epigraph of the novel.

[5] ChristianG. Appy, ThomasV. DiBacco, LornaC. Mason. History of the United States. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991. 512, 516, 528.

[6] Paul A. Carter. The Twenties in America. 2nded. New York: Crowell, 1975. 8.

[7] Cf. BernardBailyn, Robert Dallek, David Brion Davis, David Herbert Donald, John L. Thomas, and Gordon S. Wood. The Great Republic: A History of the American People. 4th ed. Lexington and Toronto: D.C. Heath and Company, 1992. 335.

[8] F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby.1st ed. Stuttgart/ Düsseldorf/ Leipzig: Ernst Klett Verlag, 1994. 17-18.

[9] Ibid. 39.

[10] Ibid. 36.

[11] Ibid. 93.

[12] Cf. John M. Blum, William S. McFeely, Edmund S. Morgan, Arthur M. Schlesinger, Kenneth M. Stampp, and C. Vann Woodward. The National Experience. Part Two: A History of the United States Since1985. 8th ed. Fort Worth, Philadelphia, San Diego, New York, Orlando, Austin, San Antonio, Toronto, Montreal, London, Sydney, Tokyo: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich College Publishers, 1993. 664- 66.

[13] F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby.1st ed. Stuttgart/ Düsseldorf/ Leipzig: Ernst Klett Verlag, 1994. 131.

[14] Ibid. 23.

[15] Cf. Hans R. Guggisberg. Geschichte der USA. 3rd ed. Stuttgart i. a.: Verlag W. Kohlhammer, 1993. 178- 79.


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Title: The Roaring Twenties - Historical Circumstances of "The Great Gatsby"